Sunday, January 26, 2020

Personalized Learning: The Why, How, and What

Education is at a crossroads. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is chugging ahead with the 5th on the horizon. New technologies have radically changed the world that all of us live and work in across the globe. In many cases, this has been a good thing, but not always. The fact of the matter is that change isn’t coming; it is banging on the door every day. The mantra of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is beginning to fade more and more. As times change, many schools and districts are grappling with what to focus on in an effort to keep up with societal demands, a changing workforce, new areas of study, disruptive technologies, and learners who crave more relevant experiences. As a result, many educational entities have embraced a shift to a more personalized approach to learning.

While this is admirable, what I have experienced firsthand is a lack of a uniform vision and plan or collective understanding as to what it means to personalize learning. It is definitely not about putting all kids on a device at the same time with no discourse under the guise that a tool can create a truly personal experience. Heck, it doesn’t even have to involve technology, but virtually every educator sees it as necessary. The goal of this post is to help schools, districts, and educators develop a clear understanding of what personalized learning really is in order to implement it effectively at scale.

Personalization represents a shift in focus from the “what” (content, curriculum, tests, programs, technology) to the “who” to create a more personal learning experience for all kids. At the forefront is developing and sustaining a culture that imparts purpose, meaning, relevance, ownership, and various paths that cater to both the strengths and weaknesses of all students. It is critical to come to a consensus as to what this then means in the context of teaching, learning, and leadership. Common vision, language, and expectations matter if the goal is to move beyond just a buzzword or isolated pockets of excellence. Below is an image I created to help schools and districts with all of the above.

Learning Environment

The learning environment makes or breaks personalized learning. It is impacted by school culture and leadership decisions at both the administrator and teacher levels, such as policies, procedures, schedules, and facilities that treat all learners as unique individuals. This could include both where kids learn and when. Technology can, in many cases, be a central component, but as I stated above, it doesn’t have to be. Some specific examples of learning environments that cater to a more personalized approach include:
  • Flexible classrooms and spaces
  • Innovative schedules
  • No bells
  • Virtual courses
  • Work-study and internship programs
  • Academies and small learning communities
  • Outdoor classrooms and spaces
  • Field trips
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and 1:1
  • Augmented and virtual reality
The key takeaway here is that personalized learning is much more than what just happens in a classroom or the use of a tool. The right culture has to be in place to create a learning environment conducive to unleashing the genius and talents of all kids, which means focusing on equity and social-emotional learning (SEL) when needed.


Content knowledge is still essential across the board. What kids are (and will be) learning matters regardless of assertions by some pundits that claim otherwise. In some cases, the curriculum can be customized for learners to create a more personal experience. A more practical approach is to be more diligent as to the specific strategies that help learners master it in ways beyond just traditional means. No matter the path taken, a rigorous and challenging curriculum is pivotal to successfully implementing and scaling personalized learning. It also must be created in a way for students to master standards and concepts in a more personal fashion.


Instruction involves the “what” in terms of what students need to know and is what the teacher does. Strategies can include delivery of content, modeling, explanation, and review. It centers around teacher actions as opposed to teacher learning. The key takeaway here is to take a critical lens to the instructional strategies that are being implemented to ensure they impart a sense of relevance and allow all learners the opportunity to be authentically engaged in the lesson.


Whereas instruction is what the teacher does, pedagogy is the “how” and empowers learning on behalf of the students. It is essentially the science and art of teaching. It requires that teachers understand how kids learn and have the autonomy to design, implement, and assess activities that meet the needs of all students. Effective pedagogies involve a range of techniques such as cooperative learning, guided and independent practice, differentiation, scaffolded questions and performance tasks, innovative assessment, and feedback. No matter the strategy selected, the goal is to develop higher-order thinking and metacognition through dialogue and relevant application. Blended learning is one of the most popular pedagogical techniques to personalize learning.

Assessment Data

Assessment determines whether learning occurred, what learning occurred, and if the learning relates to stated targets, standards, and objectives. Well-designed assessment sets clear expectations, establishes a reasonable workload (one that does not push students into rote reproductive approaches to study), provides opportunities for students to self-monitor, and provides educators with valuable data. Most schools and districts are good at collecting data through benchmark assessments and adaptive learning tools. Where the challenges and inconsistencies arise is how it is analyzed and then used effectively to personalize learning. The following are some great starting points to better use data:
  • Grouping and re-grouping
  • Targeted instruction
  • Differentiation
  • Tiered tasks
  • Re-assess
The critical aspect here is to collect good data and then use it in ways to help students learn and grow no matter where they are.


Honoring the voices of kids and allowing them to have a say during the learning process is a central tenet of student agency. There are many definitions, some of which are broad in the sense that they address how students can be empowered to use their voices to improve the learning environment, as described earlier in this post. An article by the American Progress Institute defines it as authentic student input or leadership in instruction, school structures, or education policies that can promote meaningful change in education systems, practice, and/or policy by empowering students as change agents, often working in partnership with adult educators.

In the classroom, it can be facilitated by posing questions or problems to solve and then allowing students to use digital tools to respond through text, video, audio, drawings, images, and gifs. In many cases, voice can be amplified through the cover of anonymity, which is critical for introverts and shy students. They can also be provided with opportunities to share opinions on classroom design, assessments, and feedback. All in all, it is any act that empowers all kids to make their voices heard to help shape their learning experience. HERE is a great example that aligns with all of the above. 


Choice might be one of the most uncomplicated components to integrate daily. This could come in the form of kids selecting the right tool for the right task to demonstrate conceptual mastery, choosing where to sit in a classroom with flexible seating, or deciding how much time to spend watching a flipped lesson. It could also manifest itself in blended learning models such as choice boards and playlists. As principal, I allowed my students to choose to swap out a face-to-face class we offered in the building for a virtual course as well as to be a part of one of our three learning academies.

Path, Pace, Place

If all kids are doing the same thing the same way at the same time, individual needs are not being met. Just throwing technology into the mix isn’t a pedagogical solution. I will say this again. Putting all kids on a device to use an adaptive learning tool and calling it personalized learning is a bunch of bologna. The three “P”s provide added flexibility to emphasize a more personal approach to learning by allowing kids to follow their own path at their own pace while being afforded the optimal place to learn.

Path could come in the form of customized curriculum, asynchronous virtual courses, selecting the order in a playlist, or independent study. It allows students to progress towards standards based on their mastery levels, interests, and goals. In my former school, students were able to determine their individual paths to learn something new through our Independent Open Courseware Study (IOCS) program. Pace is as simple as allowing kids to work through activities where they have to self-manage their time in order to achieve mastery. In many cases, a timeframe is established in the classroom as students work through activities in a variety of blended learning models. Some kids need more time while others less. Place refers to where kids learn and can include flexible seating, hallways, outdoors, home, or virtual spaces.

Like many things in education, organizations and people tend to make concepts more complicated than they really are. Or they craft a vision and definition that solely meets their needs or goals. Personalized learning is about meeting the individual needs of all learners in utilizing digital and non-digital strategies. I hope that the image provided above will add some clarity to the conversation. It should be noted that a great deal more context and examples can be added to all of the elements described above.

If you would like a high-resolution version of the image in this post email me ( or provide your email in the comments section below. 


  1. Please change "grabbling" to grappling.

    Thank you for all your amazing resources

  3. This diagram does represent how the health curriculum works. we have a project based student choice course that is based on student need, reality to the world and life skills. Students can use their own personal lifestyle to create took kits they will need to use in their future lives.